A Powerful Ride By A Powerful Team

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The team time trial is a tremendously difficult and technical event, and winning one takes a lot of horsepower, a good plan, and discipline.

U.S. Postal Service wanted to win the Stage 4 team time trial of the Tour de France for a few reasons. Most importantly, they wanted to gain time over rivals like Tyler Hamilton, Jan Ullrich, and Roberto Heras. Beyond that, they wanted to repeat their team time trial victory from last year and show the other teams that USPS is the strongest, most cohesive unit in the race.

Keeping your team together is very important for a successful team time trial. Even though Lance Armstrong is the strongest individual on the team, he alone is not fast enough to lead his team to victory in an event like this. Together, nine men can always ride faster than one, especially over 64.5 kilometers.

Every member of the team played an integral role in today’s performance. They rode in a rotating paceline, with one racer riding at full power on the front and the rest recovering in the draft behind. It was up to each rider to judge his efforts so he could contribute to the pace making and still have the strength to hang on at the back when his turn was over. This became increasingly important in the latter half of the stage, when all members of the team were getting tired. Having as many men as possible for the final 15 kilometers is important because that is the portion of the race where you can lose the most time.

The possibility of crashes and mechanical problems is always high during team time trials, and today’s rainy conditions further increased the probability of a crisis. As always, USPS had a plan to handle any conceivable problem before the event even started. Originally, the plan was to wait for any rider who might fall or get a flat tire rather than leave him behind. With the length of the stage, the team believed it would be better to lose a few seconds by slowing down to wait for a team member in the first half of the race than to attempt to keep the pace high with fewer riders in the second half.

The plan changed a little bit after Benjamin Noval crashed during yesterday’s stage. Though he wasn’t badly injured and should be able to fully contribute to the team’s efforts later in the race, it wasn’t certain he could maintain the high pace necessary to stay with the team during the time trial. As it turned out, he struggled from the beginning and eventually dropped off the back of the paceline. Since it was likely that he would get dropped again later on, the team decided to continue on without him.

Fortunately, Noval stayed with the team long enough, and covered enough of the course, that he could ride the rest of the stage without losing so much time that he would be eliminated from the Tour de France. Any rider who finished the stage more than 25% slower than the winning team’s time would have been eliminated, and when US Postal won in a time of 1:12:03, Noval had to finish within 15 minutes 42 seconds to stay in the race. The Spaniard crossed the line 13 minutes and 16 seconds after his team and will be able to race another day. Had he come off the back of the paceline a few kilometers earlier, he very well could have been eliminated.

Lance Armstrong is now wearing the yellow jersey as the leader of the Tour de France, but don’t be too surprised if someone else takes it in the next few days. Defending the yellow jersey takes a lot of effort, and USPS doesn’t want to expend too much energy prior to the big mountain stage of the third week. While Lance keeps an eye on his main rivals, there are several teams who do not have a serious contender for the overall victory. The next few days are a good opportunity for those teams to get riders into a breakaway that gains enough time to put one of their men in yellow.

Chris Carmichael is Lance Armstrong’s coach and author of Chris Carmichael’s Food For Fitness: Eat Right to Train Right (July 2004)